Friday, January 11, 2013

Backstreet Room 701

Backstreet interior (2009)
Backstreet Room 701

Location: "A private club operating at the end of a commercial building between a hilly residential neighborhood and the Arkansas River," Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Opened: 1978

Closed: "Lesbian bar" open as of 1995. Though club as a whole was open at least as late as 2009, the "lesbian bar" was gone by then. Club now closed.

Back in the summer of 1995, the Associated Press picked up a story on the "gay entertainment scene" in the state of Arkansas. I found the story in the Blytheville Courier News, where it was published on July 24 of that year. 

Backstreet, along with its "companion club" called Discovery, operated out of the same "warehouse-like structure" in the City of Little Rock. No real address was given--even in the mid 1990s. We're only told (in a rather conspiratorial aside) that it was a  "private club operating at the end of a commercial building between a hilly residential neighborhood and the Arkansas River."

Despite their "companion" status, the clubs functioned as "separate entities" that were open at different times and with very divergent personalities and clientele.

Discovery was a "deafening" dance bar featuring "earthquake speakers" and a "light show." It featured female impersonators or male strippers on a weekly basis, but was open only on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.  According to Bob Gale who managed both clubs, the clientele at Discovery broke into about a 60/40 gay/straight split. Mostly dudes, I assume. 

Backstreet, on the other hand, was open seven days a week and had a "mostly gay" clientele. As far as bar designs go, Backstreet was rather unusual:

Backstreet is broken up inside into three distinct rooms around a lobby--decorated to look like a street in a Western frontier town. A room bearing the street number 501 is a "dance hall" where a disc jockey spins CDs; Miss Kitty's Country-Western Saloon has country music playing at background levels "so people can go and sit and talk," Gale said; and the door under street number 701 leads to a lesbian bar.

We're not told much more about this mysterious lesbian bar "under street number 701" other than that it was apparently relatively "quiet."

1021 Jessie Road today
Skip forward more than a decade, and lo and behold, we find a 2009 article on the Backstreet Dance ClubIt still exists! As does Discovery! We're also provided an address for Backstreet--1021 Jessie Road. And yup, it's still a gay place.

We still have the same three-bars-in-one thing going at Backstreet too. But the spaces are reconfigured differently. Room 501 was still a dance space for the 18-and-over crowd. But the former Miss Kitty's had apparently been converted into "Le Bistro"--a "place to play pool" and "hang out with friends."

As for Room 701 (now called Club 701), well, it no longer existed as a lesbian bar. It had been handed over to the drag queens for their shows:

701 backstreet is also an 18 and up venue.  Located in the rear of the facility, 701 offers guests one of Little Rocks hottest Drag Shows.  Each week the audience can expect a trip into a world of glamour, beauty, and entertainment. Aside from the dazzling impersonators, the shows also feature a top-notch production crew. The production crew performs opening numbers that range from the best of Broadway show tunes all the way through to current top 40 hits.  The shows start at 1 a.m. and are always followed by some of Little Rocks best Hip-Hop and R&B dj's who will carry you through till 5 a.m.

Unfortunately, this pretty much captures in a nutshell what happened to many former lesbian public spaces over the past twenty years or so. 

And get this: According to clubfly, the former room 501 had been renamed "The Manhole"!!! My gawd, you can't make this sh** up.... 

It seems that with the disappearance of every lesbian space, "masculinity" is redoubled either within the space itself or in the immediate vicinity. In general, it's absolutely breathtaking how many former lesbian bars are replaced with strictly gay male bars or strip clubs for heterosexual men. It's as if men must reassert (reinsert?) their occupation/domination of the space in particularly vivid or dramatic way. 

Today, Backstreet is closed according to clubfly. All three clubs within a club are gone. The location is now occupied by a martial arts studio. 

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